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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Best of 2023: Not on the list: Ant Man 3, Guardians of the Galaxy 3 and The Marvels

None of these movies were terrible. My whole family saw Ant-Man 3 and The Marvels in the theater and we all enjoyed them. The worst knock against Ant-Man 3 was the CGI on Modok’s face, which was terrible. The Marvels had an exceedingly unmemorable villain, but was a lot of fun in its admirably-brief runtime.

I think that The Marvels wouldn’t have been the megaflop it was if they had just, once the movie was in the can, changed its name to Captain Marvel 2. Lots of Marvel movies have guest-stars that take up a lot of screentime, so it wouldn’t have been weird for Ms. Marvel and Monica Rambeau to have such big roles. The movie flopped because so many people didn’t watch (or didn’t finish) the Ms. Marvel series on Disney + (which was moderately entertaining) and felt that they wouldn’t be prepared to see a movie in which she co-starred. (And bizarrely, the marketing seemed to imply that the Marvels name applied to Monica Rambeau as well, who in the comics had the “Captain Marvel” role for a while, but never has had a “Marvel” name in the MCU.) The first Captain Marvel made a billion dollars and if they had just said, “that’s the only thing you need to have seen, come on out for Captain Marvel 2!” it would have at least made its money back.

My least favorite of the three was the one that was best received by the general public, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. I intended to take my family to this one, but we were too busy the first weekend, and then I kept hearing that it was inappropriate for children. I tested out seeing it without them and I agreed. All of the gruesome animal experimentation was totally inappropriate for families. What on earth is Marvel thinking? The movie was pretty good for adults, but I’m glad I didn’t take my family, which made it a big disappointment.

So a mediocre year for Marvel. Time to right the ship. Due to the strikes, they’re mostly taking the next year off, so let’s see how they’re doing when they return.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Introduction to Best of 2023, and Not on the List: John Wick 4

Welcome to the Best (Hollywood) Movies of 2023 List! Sometimes, I’ve included world cinema on this list, but this year I decided to stick to Hollywood, which means that the wonderful Anatomy of a Fall did not make the list. As always, I’ll start with the movies I wish I’d seen: Past Lives, Zone of Interest, Wonka, Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, No Hard Feelings, Wish, Elementals, and The Boy and the Heron. So don’t expect to see those either.

I will now begin with a few days of movies that I did see but didn’t make the list, and, as always, try to glean some writing advice from them:

Not on the List: John Wick Chapter 4

One movie I greatly enjoyed this year and almost made the list was John Wick Chapter 4. Ultimately it didn’t because, like so many movies this year, including some that made the list, it was too ridiculously long.

I’ve been saying throughout the year that I should move to Hollywood and get a job as the “Cut 20 Minutes Out Guy”. I could get rich, just taking the finished edits and cutting 20 minutes out just before release. (I would also have loved to take my scissors to Indiana Jones 5, another movie that didn’t make the list.)

But there was another problem as well, which speaks to one of the pitfalls of relying on irony.

Major spoilers for the movie! Stop reading here if you haven’t seen this fun movie yet.

So this movie, and this series, ends when John Wick is shot and killed in a duel with a blind assassin.

But here’s the problem: If the whole series comes down to a gun duel with a blind man, there’s only one way it can end. If our hero easily shoots and kills a blind man, that’s lame and anti-climactic. We’d say “Of course he beat the blind man in a duel!” The only way the story works is if the blind man kills him. But it’s not good to have a story that only works one way. Irony is great but it shouldn’t be the only non-lame option.

(And can we talk about how weird it was that this movie lifted characters wholesale from two other movies? Didn’t Donny Yen already play a blind assassin in Rogue One? I kept thinking, “They wouldn’t hire the same actor to play the same character? Am I just racist and I can’t tell Asian actors apart? Nope, it was the same actor playing the same character. And the radio DJ is lifted straight from The Warriors! I guess these were homages? Some borrowing is too wholesale to count as homage.)

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Tune in Thursday at 7 Central for Table Talk!

Hey guys, the first draft of the novel is almost done! On track to finish tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Thursday at 7pm central I'll be a guest on the You Tube show Table Talk, and I gather that if you go there live you can actually pelt me with questions and potshots! We will be discussing story, possibly from a geeky perspective. When I asked how long it would go, they said "I mean, we once did 16 hours analyzing Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. So, there you go." See you there!

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Episode 46: Organizing Chaos with Sophie Beal and Gary Dalkin

Sophie Beal and Gary Dalkin return to discuss novelists’ relationship with editors, whether freelance or at a publisher. All four of us have been on one side of that divide or another, and most of us more than one, and we have a grand old time discussing it.

And hey, to see that Sophie and Gary know what they’re talking about, check out the first novel they published, SOLD, by Sue Barrow, which was chosen as the School Library Association’s summer pick for the best recent book for ages 13-16.

Monday, January 01, 2024

New Year's Resolution Time!

Hi, everybody, so my New Year’s Resolution was going to be to do at least two Shakespeare posts a week, but I didn’t finish my novel in 2023, so instead, my resolution will be to write at least five pages a day of my book until a first draft is done, then do two Shakespeare posts a week. So the blog will be quiet for a while (maybe a month?) and then spring to life. 25 Shakespeare plays to go! Starting with his two most offensive plays!

Thursday, December 07, 2023

Episode 45: Specific vs. Generic (Or is it Factual vs. Archetypal?)

It's always good to load up your story with specifics, right? Not so fast! James talks about his decision to leave some information out of his new novel Bride of the Tornado, and I quibble.

Wednesday, December 06, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist is Complete!

I started this project on August 2nd, 2021, and now it’s finally done on December 6th, 2023!

For each item in the Ultimate Story Checklist, I’ve created a new post with the text from the book, followed by every Rulebook Casefile and every Straying From the Party Line post I did on that topic, followed by a table with how each of the thirty movies I analyzed answered that question. Now that they’re all up, I’ve relinked the Expanded Checklist in the sidebar to link to the expanded posts. I left the original Checklist in there too, which links to the original posts I based the book on, and, crucially, has all the comments those posts attracted, which are well worth reading.

So what’s next? I’ll finish 37 Days of Shakespeare soon. That was going to be my New Year’s Resolution, but it may get delayed, we’ll see.

Tuesday, December 05, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Do the characters refuse or fail to synthesize the meaning of the story?

Meaning must be created in the minds of the audience, not on the page, the stage, or the screen. While it’s tempting to preprocess your conflict and present your finalized synthesis to the audience (to control what their takeaway will be), there’s no point, because they won’t care. 

Modern Family can be an entertaining sitcom—as long as you turn it off two minutes early. At the end of each episode, you have to watch a member of the family come onscreen, look right at you, and point out how all three of that week’s storylines were really about the same big theme and how glad that person is to have learned so much. Any meaning the episode may have generated is quickly slaughtered by this clumsy exegesis.

Compare this to any of the far-superior, documentary-style sitcoms this show mimics, especially the American version of The Office. Boss Michael Scott frequently appears at the end to sum up what meaning has been created by that week’s episode. But he gets it all spectacularly wrong and forces us to do the work.

You need to have the courage to let your audience draw their own meaning, even if that means they might not “get it,” or they might even come to the opposite conclusion you intended.

What were Shakespeare’s politics? In Julius Caesar, did he agree with Brutus or Marc Antony? Does he side with Prince Hal or Falstaff in Henry IV? No one knows. His plays are filled with huge ideological conflicts but few definitive statements. He gives us a thesis and antithesis and leaves the synthesis to us. That’s why he’s immortal.

Rulebook Casefile: Denying Synthesis in An Education
Yesterday, we looked at one reason why the “third act” of An Education is so short: the story isn’t as interesting once Jenny has dumped her con man fiance, and we don’t want to watch her study for her tests.  That works out just fine.  Nobody misses those beats, and the ending is still satisfying.

This was true in Nick Hornby’s script as well, but somewhat less so.  Director Lone Scherfig is extremely faithful to the script overall, but she cuts several exchanges out of the last part of the script, and replaces the last page entirely.  These judicious cuts made the movie much better, and exemplified the importance of not allowing the characters to process the theme.

In the finished film, we end with Jenny, at Oxford, happily riding a bicycle through campus with a boy she seems to be dating, as we hear a voiceover (for the first time in the movie), saying that she tried to forget the whole thing, and one day, when a boy asked her to go to Paris with him, she said yes... “as if I’d never been.”  Fade to black. 

On the last page of the original script, we also have Jenny bicycling through Oxford, but then, one day...


This is way too much closure. What’s so great about the final onscreen ending is that it’s haunting. She never expunges the ghost of David, so he hovers over her whole life. She can pretend that it never happened, but she’ll always know better.

Director Lone Scherfig knew she had a brilliant script  on her hands...but she also knew that the last page blew it, and a better last page would make it a classic. She kept pushing until she found the last page the movie needed.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. He never says what he learned.

Alien

YES. She doesn’t say anything about the evils of corporate sovereignty in her final recording.

An Education

YES. The original script contained much more recriminations in the third act, but in the finished film, most of those questions land in the viewer’s lap, which is better.

The Babadook

YES. Her reversible behavior is very subtle.  

Blazing Saddles

YES.

Blue Velvet

YES. they never talk about what it all means.

The Bourne Identity

YES. he and Marie don’t discuss it at the end.  

Bridesmaids

YES. There is no analysis of what she’s learned after the wedding.

Casablanca

Pretty much.  He tries to say what it all means, but that’s just to get her on the plane, he hasn’t really processed the pain yet.

Chinatown

YES. Very much so.  He chooses to “forget about it”

Donnie Brasco

YES.  Donnie literally doesn’t speak again after Lefty is killed.

Do the Right Thing

YES. They do discuss it, but they don’t kill the meaning or settle the dilemma as they do so.  

The Farewell

YES.

The Fighter

NO. the epilogue hits it pretty squarely on the head, but that’s fine.  It’s a sports movie.

Frozen

YES.  There’s not a lot of talk about what it all means.  

The Fugitive

YES. They just barely do it, and that’s fine.  Gerard admits that he did come to care, this one time, but he laughs it off and says “Don’t tell anybody.” There’s no serious rapprochement. 

Get Out

YES. Chris barely speaks in the final third of the movie and won’t talk about what happened to him when Rod rescues him.  

Groundhog Day

YES. He doesn’t go back and figure out what was different about that last day.

How to Train Your Dragon

NO. By knocking Hiccup out for the denouement, we skip the actual rapprochement between the Vikings and the dragons, but there’s still a lot of talk about what it all means.

In a Lonely Place

YES. He synthesizes it in a pat way, but because we saw him coin that phrase before, we suspect that he is only pretending to feel the impact, or that he’s summoned up so many canned feelings for Hollywood that he can’t summon up any raw, authentic feelings anymore.

Iron Man

YES. Stane isn’t mentioned again after he’s killed. 

Lady Bird

NO. she basically synthesizes it. 

Raising Arizona

NO. Nope, he does a lot of synthesizing, at the end and throughout. Even when he doubts his conclusion (about Reagan, for instance) we don’t. 

Rushmore

YES. Max has learned a lot, but he doesn’t want to talk about it much.

Selma

Nope.  Both King and Johnson give big speeches summarizing the meaning. 

The Shining

YES. the epilogue was cut.  There is no attempt to process that we see.  Danny doesn’t even speak after the finale begins.

Sideways

YES. We never hear the final conversation. He doesn’t say what the kid’s essay means to him, etc.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Very much so. We never see them second-guess the value of working with Lecter.

Star Wars

YES. The finale is wordless.

Sunset Boulevard

NO. he returns from the dead to spell it out for us. Wilder was not the type to leave anything unsaid.  

Monday, December 04, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy?

I had the good fortune to teach a section of Andrew Sarris’s Hitchcock course at Columbia. Mr. Sarris did more than anyone to cement Hitchcock’s critical reputation in this country, and there was no better education than watching the films with him, hearing his lectures, and then facilitating a discussion with my half of the class the next day. My favorite student questions were those I never thought to ask. When we were discussing Vertigo followed by North by Northwest, I was asked an odd but interesting question. Allow me to paraphrase the student: 
  • Everybody pretty much agrees that North by Northwest is a perfectly constructed film. It fits together better than any other Hitchcock movie. And, yet, you say Vertigo is considered to be “greater” by almost every critic. How can Vertigo, which is really messy, be better than North by Northwest, which is perfect? 
It was a good question. Vertigo has a very odd structure. It slows down to a crawl in places. It leaves plot threads dangling and forgets to pick them back up. The plot is untidy and so are the character arcs. We’re left wondering at the end about everybody’s motivation. We can guess, but we can’t be sure. North by Northwest, on the other hand, builds and builds and then pays off seamlessly. We understand every beat of Cary Grant’s journey, strategically and emotionally. It’s an immensely satisfying movie to watch.

But depth is found in holes. A few unanswered questions and unresolved emotions are necessary to really have a profound effect on a viewer. Right at the beginning of Vertigo, we abruptly cut from Jimmy Stewart, dangling from a building in terror, with no rescue in sight to several months later, as he talks with a friend about leaving the police force. We can figure out what happened in between, but because we never see the rescue, we’re left with the unresolved disturbance of his emotional reaction.

Similarly, I mentioned earlier that Madeleine’s disappearance from the hotel room is never explained. Again, we can hazard guesses, but the refusal to tidy up this loose end gnaws at us on a subconscious level.

These aren’t really plot holes; they’re just holes, gaps in the story, and that’s what makes Vertigo a greater film than North by Northwest. Great art shouldn’t be entirely satisfying. It has to disquiet us a little—and have a few holes for us to get stuck in. 

The Ending Doesn’t Determine the Meaning in Whiplash
The Ending Doesn’t Determine the Meaning: One problem with these sorts of movies is that it’s so hard to keep the ending from determining the meaning—If the pupil succeeds, it was all worth it, and if he fails, it wasn’t, right? Some great movies have tried to have it both ways (The Black Swan, The Color of MoneyDownhill Racer and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner) but this movie just may top them all. The climax of this movie mercilessly toys with our hard-wired need to determine if it’s “all worth it”, whipping our emotions back and forth several times. Ultimately, the only conclusion we can reach is that, no matter how this ends, both sides will lose, because “greatness” itself may be an unhealthy and inhumane concept.

Rulebook Casefile: The Value of the Untidy Gaps in Blue Velvet
The first cut of Blue Velvet apparently ran a full four hours, but producer Dino DiLaurentiis had given Lynch complete freedom with one condition: it had to be under two hours. Sure enough, the final cut is precisely one frame shorter than 120 minutes!

So how do you chop four hours down to two? Well, there are a lot of candidates for cutting here: odd cappers on scenes that feel creepy and unmotivated (“You know the chicken walk?”), long silences while Jeffrey watches things, the strange visit to Dean Stockwell’s house, generic montages of small town life, etc… The natural impulse would be to cut out everything but plot essentials until you have a lean, mean two-hour movie that “really moves”, as the critics say.

But Lynch could tell the difference between the baby and the bathwater. He left the idiosyncrasies in and chopped huge chunks of the plot out. The result is that we never make much sense of what’s really going on, but that’s fine. Lynch knows that untidiness can increase the meaning and power of a movie.

He could have said “Wait, if we don’t see them finding the second ear in the sink, then won’t it be confusing that Don is missing two ears when they find his body at the end?” And the answer is of course, “yes,” but it’s the right sort of gap: one we can fill in on our own if we care to (presumably the same people cut the second one off too, right?) but we don’t need to. It’s just another unexplained detail that make the world seem bigger than the movie, which is something the audience likes.

Of course, even with the plot sliced way down, there was still more to cut, so Lynch’s decision to cut out many of Jeffrey’s early scenes was even more daring. We originally met Jeffrey at college, watching from afar as a girl is almost date-raped, and only stopping it when someone else approaches the scene. This clearly sets up his longstanding problem. Then there were a lot more scenes when he first arrives in town that showed his frustration with his mom and aunt, including one where his mom tells him that they won’t be able to afford college for him anymore, causing him to worry that there will be no outlet for his darker impulses at home.
As I wrote about before, sometimes you have to write deleted scenes. Without those scenes on the page, the character would have seemed much less compelling until almost halfway in, but Lynch discovered he could cut them from the final movie because his amazing star, Kyle McLaughlin, managed to convey all of that deviance and frustration beneath the placid surface of his creepy/charming face. Just the curious way he looks at that ear basically tells us everything we need to know.

Straying from the Party Line: The Tidy Conclusion of Raising Arizona
Deviation: The movie ends with another long voiceover montage in order to wrap everything up.

The Problem: This should also be off-putting, denying the audience a chance to decide for ourselves what everything means in the end. And by tying off all of the loose plot threads, we have less to think about afterwards.

Does the Movie Get Away With It? Somewhat, but it’s more problematic than the opening montage. Let’s start with the montage of what happens to all of the other characters. On the one hand, it’s delightful to see Gale and Evelle go back to prison by climbing back into the mudhole they climbed out of, but surely there was no need to show brother-in-law Glen getting his eventual comeuppance after telling a Polish joke to a Polish cop?
Recently, the Coens’ endings have been anything but tidy. For the most part that’s good: We enjoy the frustration of not knowing what happened to the money in Fargo or No Country for Old Men, for instance. One could argue that in their most recent movies they’ve actually take this a little too far in the other direction (see the anticlimactic endings of A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis) but their recent instincts are still good: it’s better to trust the viewers rather than hold their hands at the end.

As for Hi’s summation of what happens to himself and Ed, the ending tries a little too hard to be satisfying by having it both ways:
  • First we get the “real consequences” version, in which the couple, still childless, content themselves to send anonymous gifts to Nathan Arizona, Jr, every year, and live vicariously through his accomplishments.
  • But then we get another vague ending tacked onto that one, implying that Hi and Ed somehow did get to raise kids and have a large family of their own someday.
This feels a little “80s” to me, like the Coens are being overgenerous to the their characters. This was still a point when indies were anxious to prove that they could be just as satisfying as Hollywood films. Don’t get me wrong, this is far preferable to modern indie movies, which too often equate “realism” with bleakness and misery, but I do wish that the Coens had trusted their bittersweet “root for Nathan, Jr. from afar” ending.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES, the other guys’ relationships remain vague.

Alien

YES. Very much so.  We know very little at the end about what was really going on.  If only someone would do a prequel!

An Education

YES.  What was his plan? Bigamy? A phony marriage? Leave his wife? We never know.

The Babadook

YES. Very much so.  The ending is very tantalizing and bizarre. 

Blazing Saddles

YES. everything is vague at the end.

Blue Velvet

YES.  huge questions are left unanswered.

The Bourne Identity

NO. It’s fairly tidy, but that’s fine.

Bridesmaids

YES. Somewhat. The romance certainly isn’t tied up with a bow.

Casablanca

YES. we don’t find out the fate of the other couple trying to get free, for example.

Chinatown

YES. Very much so.  If you go back and think about it, little of it makes sense, but the audience doesn’t care. 

Donnie Brasco

YES.  

Do the Right Thing

YES. Will Mookie comes back to Tina, etc. 

The Farewell

YES. It’s very untidy.  We never find out if Billi finds a way to make it in NYC, etc. 

The Fighter

YES. Very much so. The events are very messy. 

Frozen

YES. We never find out the source of the powers, etc. 

The Fugitive

Not really.  We even see that Cosmo is okay.  It’s a pretty tidy ending.  

Get Out

YES. Lots of them.  Will he be able to explain any of this to the cops?  What about all the other victims?  (Of course, there are even more loose ends in Peele’s next movie.)

Groundhog Day

YES. Very much so. What caused this? We’ll never know.

How to Train Your Dragon

NO. Hmm… It’s pretty tidy.

In a Lonely Place

YES. we never find out how and why the murder happened.

Iron Man

YES. In the truly terrible deleted scenes, everything is explained in much more details, and as a result the story feels leaden and meaningless.

Lady Bird

YES. She still hasn’t found love.  She still hasn’t told anyone the truth about being from Sacramento. 

Raising Arizona

NO. It’s fairly tidy, using lots of voiceover to explain lots of little things, like what happened to the brother-in-law, etc.

Rushmore

YES. everyone is there for the finale, but their stories don’t wrap up neatly.

Selma

YES. The tension with SNCC and with Coretta is mostly left unresolved.  It would be great to see a sequel.  

The Shining

YES. We don’t understand the final shot, for instance. 

Sideways

YES. It’s not clear what will happen when he shows up at her door. 

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Lecter remains free, and we never fully understand the mechanics of his escape.

Star Wars

YES. Vader lives, the empire continues, and Jabba’s debt is still looming over Han. 

Sunset Boulevard

YES.  It’s fairly tidy, but one big question is never answered, though: Did Joe decide to leave Norma before or after he sent Betty away?